In response to Donald Trump’s phone call with Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen, China lodged an official diplomatic protest today, but diplomatically is blaming Taiwan for the “petty” move. The protest urged the careful handling of the Taiwan issue to avoid an unnecessary disturbances in relations.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at an academic forum that, “This is just the Taiwan side engaging in a petty action, and cannot change the ‘one China’ structure already formed by the international community.”
This level of furor over a phone call may surprise you. You might be asking yourself, “what’s the big deal? Why shouldn’t one democratically elected leader call another and congratulate them on winning an election?”
To properly answer why this is such a big deal, we have to explore a little bit of the history between China and Taiwan. The primary issue lies with something called the “one-China” policy that has dictated U.S. relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) since the 1970s.
After the Maoist Communists took control of mainland China in 1949, the then-president of China, Chiang Kai Shek, fled with the remaining members of the Republic of China (ROC) across the Formosa Strait to Taiwan. From there, they maintained that they were still the legitimate government of China, holding a seat in the UN.
During the height of the Cold War during the 50s, the United States entered into a mutual defense treaty with Taiwan that was aimed at stopping the spread of communism. The treaty stopped the PRC from invading Taiwan and taking control of the island. In 1979, as this mutual defense pact ended, official diplomatic ties were severed between the United States and the ROC (Taiwan) and the United States recognized the PRC as the official government of China. The mutual defense treaty transitioned into the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA).
Essentially, the United States no longer officially recognized the ROC. However, they still maintain de facto diplomatic relations with them. This means that while there isn’t an official embassy in Taiwan, the U.S. maintains relations with them through the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT). The AIT is a nonprofit that was incorporated in Washington, D.C. and maintains all commercial, cultural, and other important relations with Taiwan. The AIT also has significant special powers which essentially makes it the U.S. Embassy in Taiwan in practice, but not in name (for instance, the AIT handles visas and consular services to American expatriates in Taiwan). Also of significance is that workers at AIT belong to the State Department and other agencies of the United States.
Another important part of the TRA states that the United States is also obligated to come to Taiwan’s defense militarily if the PRC should invade or attack. The TRA is a balancing act that is a polite fiction which essentially allows Taiwan to hold democratic elections and run its own country without interference from Beijing. It also allows the PRC the polite fiction that they are the one-China. It’s a delicate balance that maintains a polite peace in a simmering pot of trouble. The PRC doesn’t invade Taiwan to avoid drawing the U.S. into a war, and Taiwan doesn’t declare independence and say that they are a sovereign nation.
It is a delicate Jenga tower of blocks that has been in place for 37 years.
So, here comes the President-elect, who not only accepts a phone call from the President on Taiwan (which is the proper diplomatic language), he speaks to her as a fellow head of state.
The main issue is this: The PRC knows it would be disastrous to invade Taiwan. About the only thing that could drive them to commit this level of international aggression would be if Taiwan declared its independence and stepped onto the international stage. That would be an insult that the PRC could not and would not let slide.
If the PRC invaded, the terms of the TRA are clear. The United States would render military aid on a level that is decided by the president and Congress. However, the United States can ill afford to fight a two-front war. Our military manpower that we could muster quickly pales in comparison to the over 4 million front-line and reserve troops that the PRC has at their disposal. While we currently hold a slight technological edge over the PRC, that gap is closing quickly.
What both sides do have are plenty of are nuclear weapons. While it is unlikely that China would fire on the U.S. directly in order to avoid drawing in other treatied nations, such as NATO, once the nuclear trigger is pulled, that gun can’t be put back in the holster easily. And we all know where President-elect Trump stands on using nuclear weapons.
Another troubling aspect is the break that the President-elect seems to be making, not just with the promises he made during the election, but also with the Republican National Party. The Republican party had already issued a statement on Taiwan during the 2016 Republican National Convention on page 55 of the Republican Party Platform.
“Our relations will continue to be based upon the provisions of the Taiwan Relations Act, and we affirm the Six Assurances given to Taiwan in 1982 by President Reagan. We oppose any unilateral steps by either side to alter the status quo in the Taiwan Straits on the principle that all issues regarding the island’s future must be resolved peacefully, through dialogue, and be agreeable to the people of Taiwan.”
The Six Assurances are a guideline on how trade and diplomatic relations will occur with Taiwan. The most important part of them for our purposes is that they state unequivocally that the United States takes no sides on the issue of Taiwan vs. the PRC and that the matter of one or two Chinas is entirely up to them.
Donald Trump is then proving himself to be a rogue. A President-elect who disregards the stated platform of his own party. In essence, Trump has just removed a key block from the Jenga tower that is U.S.-PRC relations and the entire tower is trembling. And if it falls, whether through ineptitude or calculated design on the part of the incoming administration, the impact of the blocks will have dire consequences for the entire planet.
[Featured Image by Evan Vucci and Chiang Ying-ying/AP Images]